Walkabout: Saving St. John the Baptist Church

Arial view of St. John's Church and former St. John's College. Photo: Topix.com

(Photo from early 1900’s)

Brooklyn’s not the “Borough of Churches” for nothing. From store-front chapels to enormous cathedrals, Brooklyn’s got church going on up in here. But all of these houses of worship depend on the pocketbooks of parishioners to keep the roof over their heads, literally, and far too many churches have not been able to do so, especially in neighborhoods that are not as wealthy as they once were. Especially among Catholic churches, the sacrifice of 19th century immigrant families to build parishes in their new neighborhoods, has led to some of the most magnificent churches in the borough, and in the case of St. John the Baptist Church, in what is now Bedford Stuyvesant, what a magnificent church! But can it survive? Here’s a look at its long history.

Brooklyn’s 21st Ward, which was also known as the Eastern District, was home to a growing population of Irish and German Catholics. As this population grew and prospered in their new communities, more and more parishes were needed to fill their spiritual needs. In 1868, the Vincentian Order announced the building of a Catholic college in Brooklyn, one that would be “a college for the education of the youth of Brooklyn, without distinction of religious belief, political opinion, or social condition.” This was only for boys, of course. But before the college could be built, a parish was needed, and a church was established, called Mary, Queen of the Isles, an apt name for this mostly Irish congregation. While the big plans were on hand for the college, it was decided to build a small wooden parish church on the back part of the large grounds purchased for the college.

The cornerstone of the college was laid in 1868, with the church going up the same year. The plan was to build a new church building after the college was up and running. This was a huge event, here in Brooklyn, as the city’s Catholic population was growing in both numbers and political powers, and the Irish Catholics, especially, were flexing their muscles. Mayor Kalbfliesch, Bishop John Laughlin, the popular and influential first Catholic Bishop of the new Brooklyn Dioceses, was on hand for the ground breaking, and the keynote speaker was ex-Gov. Lowe of Maryland. Traffic was re-routed, and special public transportation arrangements were made in order to accommodate the large number of people who attended the event. There were bands, choirs and a parade. The spade from the groundbreaking was later sold in auction to raise money for the college and church. Mary, Queen of the Isles church opened a year later, in 1869.

Soon after the groundbreaking, the name of the college was changed to St. John the Baptist to honor Bishop Laughlin’s patron saint. The name of the church itself seems to have fluctuated between the two names, with both appearing in the Brooklyn Eagle at the same time. But in 1888, with the college’s main buildings long finished, and successfully up and running, and growing, it was decided that it was time to build a church that was worthy of the large school building. It, too, would be known as St. John the Baptist Church.

Patrick Keely was chosen as architect for the project. He had been the architect of the grand St. John’s College building.
Keely, an Irish immigrant, the son of a builder and carpenter, was the go-to architect for the Catholic Church on the Eastern Seaboard, through the latter half of the 19th century. He designed literally hundreds of churches and religious buildings from Nova Scotia to Florida, and beyond, with the majority in Boston, New England, and New York/New Jersey. His designs range from the simple to the magnificent, and here, we got magnificent on a grand scale. Keely knocked himself out on this one.

This huge Romanesque design was hailed by the press as simply awesome, in the true sense of the word. It’s designed in a classic cruciform shape, with a long nave leading up to the chancellery and apse, and right and left transepts. Pillars and columns abound, made of different kinds of marble, supporting soaring arches. There were frescoes and murals by Leon Dabo, one of the most pre-eminent painters of the day. His fresco depicting the Ascension of Christ, painted on the dome, is regarded as one of the treasures of the church. So too, were the stained glass windows, with side aisle windows by Otto Heinike, as well as the works of Giuseppe Calladrone, who sculpted many of the statues of angels and saints, as well as the huge bronze chandeliers. The altar, itself, was modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome, and featured Carrara, Sienna, Irish red and royal green marbles. The supporting capitals of the baldachin, the canopy over the altar, were gilded, with onyx columns. Onyx also was used in some of the nine side altars, and the four foot altar lamp was supported by silver plated figures of angels.

The aisles were paved with Florentine mosaics, and the oak pews could seat over twelve hundred people. The parishioners would worship with the help of a magnificent organ built by the Carl Barkoff Organ Company, one of the largest organs in the country, in this grand church lit by over 1,500 incandescent bulbs. No expense was spared to build this incredible building, which loomed over the Eastern District’s rows of brownstones and flats buildings, backed up by the equally large buildings in the St. John’s College complex. It must have been stunning, and the interior scale, quite awe inspiring.

Period postcards show the church, alone on its plaza, with its rose window and front entrance facing not Willoughby or Hart Street, but facing Stuyvesant Avenue, half a block away. The church owned the entire block, so instead of the houses that enclose the block now, there was nothing but the open space of the grounds, which included playing fields for the college.

It’s still pretty awe inspiring to come up on this church. But the first thing you notice is that the once glorious windows are now all sealed with plywood. The parish now only uses the lower chapel, in the basement, as it were. Splendor is expensive to keep up. The College of St. John, which is now known as St. John’s University, fled to the suburban calm of Queens in the 1950’s, when enrollment dropped because of the school’s inner city location. Bedford Stuyvesant was going through its worst of times, and although the school buildings were still being utilized by other institutions, by the 1960’s and ‘70’s, the congregation of the church had dropped drastically. African-Americans and Hispanic parishioners had replaced the Irish, Italians and Germans who once also called the neighborhood home. But their numbers and incomes were not as great, and the great structure was feeling the pain of deferred maintenance.

In 2005, the Dioceses of Brooklyn merged St. John the Baptist Church and nearby Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. Both buildings were kept open, but share priests and administrative staffs. Both have large church buildings, although St. John’s is much bigger. Our Lady of Good Counsel was a Building of the Day, last year. See the link for more information.

Perhaps it was at this time that the upper part of the church was sealed. The magnificent stained glass windows had numerous holes and breaks, and the interior of the church suffered from water and other damage. In 2009, the church received an emergency grant from the Sacred Sites program of the New York City Landmarks Conservancy. This gave them the ability to remove some of the plywood from the sides of the church, and do some much needed repair to the windows. Photographs from that repair show the extent of the damage, as well as a shot showing the interior of the church from above. The photos also show the magnificence of the church, and give an idea of what lies inside. The Keely Society, an organization that keeps track of all of Patrick Keely’s churches and other buildings, notes on their website that St. John’s planned to re-open beginning in 2010, but that did not happen.

Walking around this church, with its massive boarded up windows is a hauntingly beautiful experience , as well as a heartbreaking one. You feel as if you have discovered a ruin in the jungle, abandoned to the elements. Rust covers the pressed metal cornice, cross, and rooftop elements, making for an artful patina in photographs, but further evidence of damage to the building, as the metal is eaten away. The building is so large and tall that the boarded up windows, which are at least two or three stories high, seem even larger, and the building looms like Detroit’s abandoned railroad station. In what used to be St. John’s front yard, the half block between the front of the church and Stuyvesant Avenue, affordable housing has been built, cutting the church’s original grand vista from the street, increasing the feeling of isolation. Yet the building is not dead.

A church within a church lies below, on the ground floor of the structure, where services still take place. The funeral of Maria Hernandez took place here in 1989. She was the brave woman who, with her husband, family and small band of neighbors, stood up to drug dealers in her Bushwick neighborhood, and was killed for it. The mayor, Ed Koch, elected officials, police, and the entire neighborhood came out to salute her and mourn her loss. There are good things here. A private elementary school, community outreach programs, a food bank, credit union, and children’s programs. There are now services in both English and Spanish. Perhaps sealing up the church saved it, in the only way possible, in this time and economy. Patrick Keely, the Vincentian fathers, and Bishop Laughlin, who died before the building was finished, wanted the church to be an inspiration to the Catholic population of this part of Brooklyn. Marble, silver and gold, frescoes and stained glass are beautiful, and certainly worthy of protection and care, but it’s the spirit of the people who attend services, who live in the neighborhood, and work to protect their homes that make a parish and a community. This community is still very much alive, and hopefully, someday, the sun will shine through the windows of St. John the Baptist Church again. GMAP

(Special thanks to Alex Herrera of NYC Landmarks Conservancy, and Colleen Heemeyer of the Conservancy’s Sacred Spaces Program, who provided the Gil Studio photographs. For more information on their effort to save our state’s important sacred spaces of all faiths, please see their website.)

Arial view of St. John's Church and former St. John's College. Photo: Topix.com

Interior. Photo: Keely Society

Interior in 1940. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

2009 Restoration and repair of upper windows. Photo: The Gil Studio.

Interior in 2009. Photo: The Gil Studio.

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